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Opinion: Maternity leave in lockdown was no picnic, so please don't forget new parents

New mother Patrice Hosford is asking the government to improve the leave entitlements currently available to new parents.

Patrice Hosford

EVERYTHING CHANGED ON 11 March – literally. But also for me personally. I became a mam as a pandemic was confirmed by the World Health Organization.

I was also one of the lucky ones as I didn’t have a Covid-19 cloud hanging over me throughout my pregnancy. My husband was allowed in with me while I laboured on a ward before we went to the delivery suite, which was more than most have experienced since. He was even allowed in to visit the next day before the hospital went into lockdown. So, we had a brief window of normality.

We got into hospital just in time, we were told. On our last hospital appointment, the previous Friday, the start of the visitor restrictions were beginning. No one could attend outpatient, scans or day cases with the women, and only the nominated person would be allowed in for labour or delivery and onto the wards. All of this is understandable, for the safety of patients and staff.

We felt for people who were affected by all that was going on. In particular, first-time parents like us who would not be unable to enjoy the 20-week scans together. Naively,  like most of the country, we figured these measures would be in place until the end of March at the worst. We didn’t see the next four months coming.

A strange beginning

Though we were relieved at getting into hospital just before the lockdown, we weren’t prepared for the procedures that were put in place. My husband, and the other partners on the ward, were told once they left on March 12 that they wouldn’t be let back into the hospital until we were due to be discharged.

We hadn’t expected this but accepted it was the best option given that there were some very vulnerable babies and mams in the hospital to think about.

I had been told they usually keep breastfeeding mams like me in for a minimum of 48 hours to ensure the baby is feeding ok. Due to the visiting restrictions, they decided I could be discharged a day earlier than planned.

The assumption was that my younger sister, a midwife and former colleague to many of the midwives who looked after me (excellently I might add), would be able to assist me during these early few days. Unfortunately, coronavirus had other plans and this didn’t happen, due to distancing, although she was on hand by phone.

Lockdown struggles

I left the hospital with no pain relief and walked to reception to meet my husband and put our lovely new baby son into the car seat and head home. It was strange knowing we were doing this alone and of course, we were entirely unaware of what was to come over the next few months.

The day I got home my parents and sister came to visit, something I think about a lot now. Had I been kept in, this would not have been possible. My in-laws were not so lucky, our son was 12 weeks before they met him for the first time.
We were lucky that we live in the same county as our immediate family so at last those early visits at the end of gardens, showing our son off through windows to our cocooning family were just lovely. But once the lockdown happened that was over.

We were outside the 2km limit and so that loss of contact with family and friends in this phase was hard enough for us as new parents. What we didn’t see coming was how difficult it would be to lose access to many medical supports.

Missing early care

We had to return to the hospital for the baby’s heel prick test early on. I was sure I had an infection. I was sitting alone with a number of new mams as we waited to be called for the heel prick without our partners.

We sat for hours for our turn and it seemed like an age. It’s a nervous time as a new mother going through this, but in the midst of a pandemic, it’s just scary.

I had to walk to reception and wheel the baby out to my husband when the test was done and then head to the Emergency Department to get seen to myself to confirm the infection. This, in normal circumstances after a baby arrives, is an upsetting experience, but doing this without even the option of having family over to support you is just plain unpleasant.

My son didn’t get his two-week check-up. The six-week one that should include both of us did happen, but I wasn’t checked. This turned out to be unfortunate as I noted my pain had returned.

I felt for the medical staff, they were doing their best. My blood pressure and temperature were checked, but nothing else. My stitches from the tear and episiotomy were left unchecked even when I noted I had already had an infection. My stomach wasn’t pressed on to ensure my uterus had contracted after the birth.

This meant a week later I presented back to the ED with a growth in the area of the pain. Due to all the restrictions, I had to schedule when I went in with my husband’s work rota, so he could drive me in and mind our son while I waited.

This resulted in him essentially doing laps around the hospital for three hours between nappy changes and trying to get our son to take a bottle until I waited to be seen. A week later I did get a phone consultation with a GP to obtain antibiotics to help with the infection that had caused the pain to intensify.

Maternity leave has been a rocky road for me physically. I have since managed a physical GP visit to help with my post-delivery issues, and as of last week, I’ve been back in the hospital for treatment so I can finally be pain-free. Again, this was all done while trying to manage to sort what I can from home or when my husband is free to mind our son.

Grateful for a lot

Again, I’m grateful for a lot, my son’s vaccines have been done to schedule, but I know of others who have had to fight to get them. Our three-month developmental checks were delayed due to Covid-19 but thankfully compared to others, not by much.

Maybe if my recovery had been linear I’d be telling you how this experience was great for us, how we got to spend more time like a bubble of three. My husband was mainly working from home so we did have more time together, and in that time I learned to trust my gut as a mother.

I’m lucky though that my employers have been brilliant. I noted I could return from maternity earlier than they expected based on my childcare options if I have the ability to work from home, so there’s been a degree of flexibility. I’m also lucky that my son is growing at a great rate even with me breastfeeding and completely winging it all the way.

What also springs to mind is how tough it was in the early few weeks without those hugs from family. Somehow, even when I knew my mood was dipping, when I’d feel like the worst mam ever, I would tell myself I am the lucky one, and try to snap out of it.

Why am I telling you all of this? I want to illustrate that the reason there have been recent requests to extend maternity leave because of Covid-19 isn’t that women wanted more coffee mornings or to hang out at baby groups.

It’s because we need breathing space, we need time to heal physically and mentally as every birth, baby and recovery are different.

We didn’t receive all the supports and check-ups that we should have because of this pandemic. The importance of these supports was hammered home to us by the medical profession during pregnancy.

Women had to labour alone and then spend days alone in the hospital after birth. They then had to come home to lockdown, sometimes with other small children to care for, knowing they may not have that vital support in those early days if their partners had to work and they didn’t have access to immediate family.

We don’t yet know the impact on our mental health from this experience. We are just ploughing along.

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The additional three weeks on offer for both parents from the new government is greatly welcomed but it is not enough given the current circumstances. Most will have already returned to work by the time it is implemented. Now is when we need support.

For me, a proper extension to maternity leave now could mean the weeks I take unpaid could now be paid. That’s a huge help to many. For many more women, it will ease a massive amount of anxiety about returning to work too soon.

I appreciate that our new government has one long list of people in this country to consider at this time. There are so many people in need of help. I do, however, feel that new parents matter as much as anyone else here. Please don’t forget them.

Patrice Hosford is an AML Analyst from Dublin currently navigating motherhood in a pandemic.

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